Mr. Speaker, I would like to address this motion proposed by the hon. member for Red Deer.
The objective of seeking ways to make government operations more open and accountable to Canadian citizens is a very good one. The hon. member is to be congratulated for bringing this motion before the House. This idea is something that should be pursued vigorously by all members of this House. As the previous speaker said, accountability is something we need more of and something the Canadian public wants more of.
In fact the Liberal Party's policy as stated in "Creating Opportunities" otherwise known as the red book, is to promote more open and accountable government. This is a promise all members of government are taking very seriously and are striving to implement in various ways.
As I have said, I agree with the objectives that motivated the member for Red Deer to propose this motion. However, I have three main concerns.
The first is that I believe the Access to Information Act should be given a complete review. The best way to do this is to let the Minister of Justice proceed with his publicly stated plans to do this. Second, I am concerned that the motion suggests that this House thinks the most important reform that can be made is to make more institutions subject to the present act rather than changing the present act to create greater access to information from institutions already subject to the act. The third area is that the motion is perhaps a little too vague in certain areas.
I want to explain each one of the three areas because I think they are important. This subject matter is of very great importance. It is one all members should hold the government to be accountable for in this Parliament.
Since this act was created in 1982 there have been two information commissioners who have made numerous recommendations for reforms to the act. There was a 1986 parliamentary committee report entitled: "Open and Shut", a 1987 response from the former government called: "Steps Ahead", many court cases and a lot of administrative experience with this act.
In addition, many institutions have adopted access legislation in recent years. The first was in Nova Scotia in 1977. Since then the federal government, as we have stated, the governments of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and the Yukon have all adopted access legislation. Alberta's access law is waiting to be proclaimed. Outside Canada, Australia and New Zealand have recently adopted access legislation and the United States amended its freedom of information act in 1986.
In addition to various access laws being adopted, the federal government has issued a blueprint for improving government services with new technologies. There is an Information Highway Advisory Council. One of the advisory council's subcommittees is called access and social impacts. Access to information must be considered in light of past experience and the new technologies that are before us today.
Given all of this activity on recent issues, it is important that we ensure full consideration is given to the various recommendations in recent years and experiences under the access laws.
We also need to call on the collective experiences of federal government officials in determining the lessons to be learned from the first decade of experience with the act and from other jurisdictions.
The Minister of Justice stated in a media interview last July that he believes the act is in need of an overhaul. He stated unequivocally that it reflects the state of the art of the mid-1970s rather than the 1990s. To me this is quite a commentary from the Minister of Justice on this act. He says there is a need to catch up with new technologies and a need for more openness.
We should give the minister the time to do his job and to consider the various suggestions for reform carefully before pushing amendments into the House.
The second reason for opposing this motion is that it suggests that the House thinks the most important reform to this act is to add institutions to be covered by the act rather than improving access to government information that is already subject to the act. More than 132 institutions at the present time are subject to this act. The most recent report of the information commissioner as well as the parliamentary committee report in 1986, "Open and Shut" made numerous recommendations for improving the act.
A motion of the House to extend the application of this act to other institutions I think would detract from these other proposals. It could be argued that the main purpose of the Access to Information Act is to hold the government accountable. An amendment to extend the act to agencies that are independent of government is not likely to address the issue of the accountability of government.
I agree that independent crown agencies need scrutiny and that scrutiny is provided in various ways. I am not saying that making more institutions subject to the act is a bad idea. However, I do not necessarily agree that we should be telling the Minister of Justice that the priority of the House is adding to the list of institutions covered by the act rather than improving access to the 90 per cent of government information already subject to the act.
The third point relates to the motion stating that Parliament and crown agencies should be subject to the act. We know that more than 130 crown agencies are already subject to the act as I have stated. Presumably the motion calls for more crown agencies to be subject to it. It is important to be more definitive and to say which ones should be subject to the act.
When we have something of this importance, with the good intentions of parliamentarians and the good intentions of the people of Canada, we have to be definitive. We have to show people that it works. We can best show people how it works by being definitive and straightforward in what we want to achieve.
The motion states that the Access to Information Act should apply to crown agencies. This seems to suggest that the act should not list precisely which agencies are subject to the act but instead should provide a general definition of what is a crown agency. It is difficult to say if this is the intent of the motion but it is an ambiguity which may make it difficult for the minister to know how to respond to the motion if it passes.
I want to cite just one example of where the general requirement that all crown corporations be subject to the access law may be too broad. I use an example in Ontario. Under the Ontario access law Ontario Hydro, the Ontario Liquor Control Board and the Ontario GO Transit Authority are subject to the act, while TV Ontario is not subject to it. This is because broadcasting, freedom of expression, confidential news sources and independence from government may raise different issues than those affecting other types of crown corporations. A one size fits all approach is not necessarily the best way to go.
There are two advantages to using what I would call a list approach rather than a general definition of crown assets approach. First, the list approach ensures we consider each agency on an institution by institution basis, taking into account any special circumstances that might apply to these institutions. There may be good reasons why one government agency should be subject to the act while another one is not.
A second advantage to this list approach is that there is certainty over which crown agencies are subject to the act and which are not. If we simply create a broad general definition of crown agency some agencies are likely to interpret whatever words are used in that definition to say the definition does not include them.
Undoubtedly this will lead to litigation with all the increased time and cost to request the government definition in question. This will use valuable court time in a system that is already overburdened.
In summary I would want to say that it is important to talk about this issue. This is an important issue. I want to thank the hon. member for Red Deer for bringing it before the House. I support the hon. member's desire for increased openness and accountability in government. I want to say to him that I am confident the Minister of Justice will address this important issue during the life of the government. It is important that we as members of Parliament support him in the act of looking into this question and bringing forward a greater accountability.